Southern England, August 1859
Beatrix Marten was not exactly the sharpest tool in the box. She was a dull child who grew up to be a dull young woman, and now she was very a dull servant. She was luckier than she ever knew to have landed the position as cook in the household of the (once) noble house Miranda, estate of the (once) great Earl of Darrington. She hailed from a deeply and disturbingly religious family that still recognized Satan as occasionally lurking about the woodshed. She was the niece of the Reverend Ephraim Marten, the local parson, and she had been placed into service at Miranda twenty years hence when the 8th Earl Darrington, father of Reginald, lost a game of cards to the good reverend and was a little “light in the wallet” that evening. In order to pay his debt, the Earl promised a position for Marten’s dimwitted niece, Beatrix, in his household.
This arrangement directly benefitted Beatrix, who apart from being not very bright, was whiny, pudgy, relentlessly plain, and, having no prospects of marriage, was on track to become an old maid (not that she would have noticed as long as her access to frequent meals was uninterrupted). Moreover, it was an extraordinarily convenient arrangement for the Reverend who, as his sister’s sole surviving family member, was bound by a death bed promise to maintain Beatrix’s upkeep, and if possible, find her husband. Since there were no takers for latter proposition, Marten had enticed the earl into a wee game of poker (some might even say hustled). When the man was so far in the hole that he started to remove his silver-buckled boots, Marten suggested that he take Beatrix as a house servant that the debt would be satisfied. The earl was puzzled at first because the normal way of things was that a young lady was offered by the loser as collateral, not the winner. But, ever one not to look a gift horse (or a homely maid) in the mouth, he accepted, thinking that he had gotten off very lightly. The earl generally had no means to pay his debts, but he was staunchly opposed to having his reputation tarnished by their subsequent and inevitable non-payment. A man’s word was his bond, after all.
The next day, while nursing a raging hangover, the earl was presented with the young lady in his study, and he stared blearily at her. Since he was also prone to blacking out from the excessive amounts of whiskey he regularly drank (which he pondered in the occasional sober moment and almost had the revelation that perhaps being drunk made him a terrible card player—almost) he did not recall what he had agreed to previous evening. Knowing the earl as he did, Marten had sent the girl with a note to remind him of his debt. The earl read the note, looked at Beatrix, looked at the note, and back at Beatrix. “Downstairs.” He growled as he shoved the note back into her hands.
Beatrix knew nothing of the details of her employment except that she was going to live and work in a grand house (or facsimile thereof). And there she remained for decades, never having really learned how to cook.
Beatrix had woken up in the wee hours of the night due to the gurgling of her stomach. She remembered that there was a very large wheel of that lovely cheddar cheese and decided to just nip down to the kitchen and sneak a slice. Maybe an apple, too. Ooh, and big roll! As she placed the wheel on the preparation counter, she heard a noise out in the courtyard behind the kitchen and wondered who would be outside at this time of night. She vacillated momentarily between the allure of an enormous cheese wheel and the curiosity of what was going on in the courtyard until a cry of “What the hell?” broke the tie and she slipped quietly out the back door to investigate. In the moonlight, she saw the lady whom the master had brought home, the one from the States. What could she be doing outside in the middle of the night? The woman headed directly for the privy and Beatrix nodded in understanding. She herself had paid a visit to the outhouse late at night after an especially indulgent meal (not one intended for her, but one of the extra meals she periodically made for guests of Lord Darrington “accidentally” which would have been a shame to chuck out).
Beatrix turned to re-enter the kitchen and claim her cheese prize, but then stopped when she heard the woman talking. When she turned back to look at the outhouse, she saw an impossibly bright light shining out of the openings near the top of the door. Who was that lady talking to in the loo? What was making that light shine like that? She crept out to the shed and cupped her ear against the back wall, opposite the door. She listened to the brief conversation but didn’t understand any of it. Why would she be surprised to be in England? And why was she talking about worms? Was she a gardener?
A few minutes later, the light ceased and Julia exited the privy. As soon as she was out of sight, Beatrix opened the shed door and said, “Aha!” to the person who must be hiding out in there. But she found herself speaking to an empty building. Beatrix was frightened and, as mentioned before, not exactly a genius. But she was certain that the lady sounded like she was in a conversation with someone. What if she was insane? What if she was conducting a séance and talking to evil spirits? What if she was a witch, communing with the devil? That would explain the hellish light she saw shining out of the privy. Scenarios that involved Satan and/or his potential minions, worshippers and/or familiars normally filled in any blanks Beatrix might have. And she had many. Beatrix crossed herself and scurried back to the house, leaving the cheese where it sat and hurrying up to her bed to put her head under the covers.